CHEERS to the bright side of a dark situation.
A power outage that left most of South Lawrence in the dark a week ago today of course brought back memories of last fall, when a natural gas emergency compelled officials to shut off electricity as a precaution in the city and nearby communities for several days.
The chaos of the gas disaster — people turned out of their homes and businesses, followed by traffic jams at rush hour — was relived during last week’s outage, albeit on a smaller, much less intense scale.
The good news last week was this: Power came back relatively quickly. An outage that started around 1:45 p.m. was mostly addressed within the next four hours.
The other good news: The Lawrence police seem to be getting pretty good at dealing with this sort of thing.
Within a half-hour or so of the power going out — the problem was blamed on old equipment at a substation off South Canal Street — the Police Department had officers directing traffic at nearly every major intersection in the affected area. Extra patrols were added.
Traffic was terrible, to be sure, with most of the traffic signals not functioning. But the nightmare was mitigated by a prompt, efficient police response.
“It’s just a lot of gridlock,” police Chief Roy Vasque told reporter Bill Kirk at the time. “We are trying to get people mobilized. This is not a good time. School is letting out, and more and more cars are on the road. It’s mostly just a matter of moving traffic along.”
The police parked their mobile command post at the corner of South Union and Salem streets. They assigned two-dozen officers to direct traffic, which included a half-dozen State Police and a half-dozen auxiliary officers. It wasn’t a good time to be in Lawrence.
But if it not for the diligence of the Lawrence police, the nightmare could have much worse.
JEERS to rekindling old river rivalries, although not for a hockey game or bragging rights or anything sporting like that.
Instead, the folks in our part of the Merrimack Valley were looking upriver and shaking our fists last week at news that the Lowell Regional Wastewater Utility had plans to accept and treat leachate from a landfill in Rochester, New Hampshire, known to be laden with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Once treated, wastewater handled by the Lowell plant is poured into the river.
Known as “forever chemicals,” because that’s how long they linger in the human body, PFAS substances used in the manufacture of firefighting foam, among other things, have been linked to certain kinds of cancer. It isn’t known how effectively the Lowell plant removes PFAS from the wastewater it handles, since testing of the river for those substances, until now, has been spotty.
In fact, “shaking our fists” is probably an understatement. Nearly 600,000 people drink treated water drawn from the Merrimack. None of us wants to drink water with elevated levels of PFAS.
Even though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a permit allowing for these chemicals to be treated at the Lowell plant — up to 100,000 gallons per day — the city of Lowell announced last Thursday that it would suspend the contract with the landfill.
A statement pointed out that officials there do not believe the treated runoff poses a health threat, “including to downriver communities that draw drinking water from the Merrimack,” but they've decided to suspend plans “out of an abundance of caution.”
In the meantime, operators of the Lowell plant are awaiting test results of water sampled near the plant and the river to better assess levels of PFAS.
The reprieve is good news, still, it’s just a reprieve. As an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation noted to Statehouse reporter Christian Wade, the toxic leachate from the landfill “has to go somewhere.”
Before it does, it would be nice if officials had a much better sense not just of PFAS levels from above and below the Lowell plant, but also of how much of these substances treated waste from the landfill will be adding to the river and what steps should be taken at the plant to filter them more aggressively.
As John Macone, co-director of the Merrimack River Watershed Council, put it, “It seems to be an issue that regulators really don’t have a solid handle on. They need to catch up quick, to protect the water supply and the environment.”
We couldn't agree with Macone more.